Birmingham Hippodrome, Tuesday 30th June, 2015
Having seen this production earlier in the tour, it was an absolute treat to be given the chance to see it again. I loved everything about it the first time and my love is renewed and redoubled to catch it a second time.
The material, of course, is sublime. Richard Rodgers’s melodic score, Oscar Hammerstein II’s witty book and lyrics, blend to create sumptuous entertainment, and this high quality production from Music & Lyrics and Northampton’s Derngate Theatre serves this classic supremely well.
Director Rachel Kavanaugh evokes both period and place, sending up, like Hammerstein does, the charmingly parochial attitudes (cf Kansas City) creating a community with its own moral values. She brings out the humour of the script and has her superlative company play it with heart as big as all outdoors.
Unofficial matriarch Aunt Eller rules the roost in a stonking performance by Belinda Lang, hard-boiled with a soft centre. Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is feisty and bold, with a sweet but powerful singing voice. From the off, Laurey bickers with cowboy Curly – in a homespun Beatrice and Benedick way – and we know they are made for each other. As for Curly – well – you fall in love with Ashley Day as soon as his voice announces, clear as bell, what kind of morning it is. Day has the matinee idol good looks, the irreverent attitude, heart-on-his-sleeve, good humour. He sings like an angel in a cowboy hat.
A rival for Laurey’s affections, although a non-starter, is live-in farm hand Jud Fry – a towering performance from Nic Greenshields. His operatic bass blends well with Curly’s tenor for the ironic duet, Pore Jud Is Daid. He is a barely contained mass of menace, a dark presence in this otherwise idyllic land. Kavanaugh balances the comedy with tension: Pore Jud is volatile enough to explode at any second.
Gary Wilmot is in his element as itinerant peddler Ali Hakim, delivering more than ribbons and other fripperies on his rounds. Wilmot’s comic timing is flawless – the jokes and business still play fresh. Lucy May Barker’s Ado Annie, a girl of distractable virtue, is a belter, in terms of selling her big number I Cain’t Say No, and in characterisation. It’s a dream of a cast, supported by an excellent chorus, including great character work from Kara Lane as Gertie Cummings and Simon Anthony, appearing in this performance as Will Parker.
During the interval I hear some purist complaining that the cylindrical hay bales with and on which the cowboys dance come from a later, mechanised age. “They should be haystacks!” he moans, balefully. I think he’s looking for something to criticise and is clutching at straws. I’d rather sacrifice agricultural accuracy for theatrical expediency: Drew McOnie’s spectacular and exuberant choreography would miss those bales terribly.
If you can overlook the hay issue, and most people seem able to, this is a truly wonderful production of a masterpiece, the pinnacle of its genre. Sometimes humanity gets things right and produces a perfect classic. Mozart did it with Don Giovanni, Walt Disney did it with Pinocchio. And Rodgers and Hammerstein did it with Oklahoma! This is popular art that speaks to us on many levels, through solid storytelling and life-affirming values.
The tour has just six weeks left to run. I urge you to catch it if you can.